When I fell for salsa, I fell hard. It started with total fascination; the camaraderie of dancing on a team; the pulsating rhythm; the incredible dancers whose movements took my breath away. It captivated my whole spirit. I was in love with salsa! It felt like discovering a whole new and exciting world, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it all.
At first, the way I saw it, learning and pursuing salsa meant getting good enough so people would want to dance with me. In the beginning, I just wanted to master the basic step– to crack open the key that I knew would unlock the rest of the dance. After that, I wanted to get proficient enough at following to make my way through a whole song without royally messing up. One goal led to the next, and a universe of potential opened up to me. The more I learned, the more I realized how much there was to learn. It was thrilling, entertaining and endlessly satisfying.
But as I improved, an unforeseen and pernicious obstacle presented itself. Without even realizing it, I had come to take my dancing so seriously that I stopped having as much fun. At first, I wasn’t even aware I was analyzing my dancing so relentlessly, nor of the impact it was having on me. I thought I was enjoying myself. I was training with some of the east coast’s top instructors; I was out dancing several nights a week; and I proudly identified as a salsa dancer for life. If you’d asked me, dancing absolutely topped my list of funnest things to do!
*Photograph by Steve Martin
Yet, on a deeper level, I was so stuck on perfecting my dancing, that I was missing out on enjoying the journey to get there.
This realization struck me hard in my second year of dance. I was on a weekend trip to
New York City – the Mecca of Salsa. I was so excited to be around so many top-notch
dancers, and to hear such amazing music.
Then the unfathomable happened: I was in the heart of midtown Manhattan, at a sublime dance studio with dancers oozing salsa magnificence, in the midst of a wonderful dance, when I thought: “I’m … bored.” Then out of nowhere, a second treacherous thought interrupted the first. “I’m tired of this. Maybe it’s time to move on.” Dancing in New York City – and feeling bored? Wanting to give up dance? Who was this person?
I decided to turn to my new mindfulness and meditation practice in order to understand what was happening to me.
NOTE: Mindfulness teaches us to identify thoughts as just thoughts – a function of the mind. Just because you have a negative thought about yourself doesn’t mean it’s true. When you examine your thoughts and question where they come from, you create space for new possibilities and ways of being.
I started to pay close attention; I focused on my breathing, and began to observe my thoughts and feelings from a neutral, curious, and open stance. What I realized (beneath the disheartening feelings of ambivalence), was a relentless stream of critiques I was throwing at myself throughout the entire dance.
“Missed that one.”
“I need to work on my spins.”
It was almost like a metronome that steadily and constantly disapproved of all of my dancing. This continuous, unforgiving, negative self-analysis was automatic and involuntary. Mistakes were forbidden and were added to a long list of tasks for me to work on. I realized I was approaching imperfection as something that was intolerable. Something that had to be vanquished in order for me to accept my dancing.
Then another realization hit me: I wasn’t bored with dance, I was bored with myself. I wasn’t sick of dance, but the critical voice in my head that repeatedly ripped my dancing to shreds. It was my own mind, and my preconceived notions of what and how I was supposed to be doing, that was making dancing laborious and painstaking. I wasn’t even aware I was analyzing my dance so relentlessly- nor of the impact it was having on me.
I believe in dance as a sacred form of self- expression. I would encourage anyone to accept themselves and their dancing as beautiful and unique. But when it came to my own dancing, I wasn’t allowing myself any room for error.
“Do better,” “Not good enough” … Sound familiar? Some of the things we say to ourselves, we probably wouldn’t dare say out loud to someone else.
This critical voice takes residence in our minds somewhere between childhood and adulthood by the conditioning of society and culture we are exposed to over the years. It’s almost like a separate entity — a voice that constantly tells us to be better, quicker, smarter, stronger.
It may seem like the critical voice serves a purpose in that it pushes us to grow and excel. Yet If we look beneath the surface, the feelings that drive these thoughts are fear and shame, which create the illusion of inadequacy. Negativity feeds on itself and makes us miserable. It keeps us from really seeing what’s happening at any given moment- preventing us from enjoying the precious moments of our lives. Fortunately, there are other positive motivators like joy, fascination, curiosity, and creativity that are a much more effective fuel for growth than self-punishment.
One of the great things about practicing mindfulness is that we can recognize when the critical voice is active. Without awareness of this negative voice, we lose the opportunity to challenge, silence and heal the subconscious beliefs that fuel this sense of deficiency. Awareness is everything- it paves the way to wholeness. By cultivating a greater awareness of self , you avail yourself of more choices for responding, instead of reacting to life.
Bringing awareness to how my mind was dictating my dance experience motivated me to take the mental and spiritual side of dance as seriously as the physical training. I realized, if I didn’t get a handle on my perfectionism, I was going to kill the thing I loved most. Afterall, dance was the very thing that made me feel free! I didn’t want to ruin it all with a to-do list!
I developed my own regimen of mindfulness practices that I used each time I went dancing to help me keep my focus. Whenever I noticed a negative thought or feeling arise about some aspect of the dance, I took that as a sign that the critical voice was at it again. I brought my attention back to my breath, and other points of concentration like the music, or the connection with my partner, that would help me stay focused in the dance, rather than on my thoughts. I replaced critiquing myself with compassion toward myself.
All of this was hard at first because I had to accept where I was in my dance journey. I wanted to become a good dancer, but not at the expense of enjoying dance. It didn’t happen overnight, but ultimately, I became much better at just laughing at my mistakes and accepting my imperfections. I relaxed. It was not a big deal that my dancing didn’t match that of my dance idols. What became more important for me was celebrating the miracle of life through dance.
Then, the most interesting thing happened: the less I cared about my dancing — the better
dancer I became. Or, at least, the better I felt about my dance skills. My mind was relaxed. I took information in more easily, without anxiety or fear of not getting the move right. My movements became more fluid, more responsive, less contrived. I felt freer, more expressive, more in sync with my body, the music, my partner, and everything around me. I let go. The best thing I ever did for my dancing was to stop worrying so much about it.
Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t give up that first day I felt bored with dancing. Instead, I dug a little deeper, and stopped to question what I was experiencing. I still critique my dancing constructively and have many things I’d like to work on, but I care about all that less and less. I just want to dance and have fun. Life is just too short.
Still, every now and then, the critical voice creeps in again. But now I have the tools to catch myself before I start to let that negativity take over. Dance for me now is about a celebration of life and gratitude, for being able to express myself through movement. In learning to keep my mind focused on what’s important in the moment when I’m dancing, I can make mistakes and be imperfect and there is no other way for me to be than me. Mindfulness has taught me how to let this person be enough.
For some of the mindfulness techniques I have used and found helpful in dance – check out Five Mindful Steps for Social Dancers.
Have you ever fallen out of love with dance? How did you find your way back? Let us know in the comments!
And if you haven’t tried doing so, consider paying attention to your thoughts, and see what you find. You may find an insight that can really help you identify ways to ease up on yourself in an important area of your life.
– Kim Torrence, Mindful Dancer
Kim Torrence is a contributing writer to The Masacote Blog. She is a dancer and creator of Mindful Dancer, an online platform that explores dance, healing, spiritual growth, authenticity, happiness, creativity, and community. Visit her personal blog for more articles and information at Mindful Dancer.